By far, the fastest growing genre of movies and entertainment right now is that of the superhero epic. We have superheroes on the brain, it seems. It’s not surprising, really; hero worship has been an element of human society for many thousands of years. It’s what made us great hunters on the plains, it’s what spurred us to learn more and more about our environment, and it’s ultimately what led to our current ideas of religion and celebrity. We consistently elevate those we perceive as our betters to a position of cultural authority, whether they deserve such reverence or not. So, in a time like this, when it’s near impossible to participate in the conversations of the day without encountering someone who’s presented as a real life superhero – though perhaps without the powers – it stands to reason that this need we have to create a class of humans who are better than us would manifest itself on the big screen.
It is strange though, that the people among us who actually do have superpowers are often treated as freaks and pariahs. In fact, I’m betting many of you reading this weren’t aware that such people even exist. Of course, the Marvel and DC comic superheroes are larger than life, and that’s how they’re supposed to be. So you won’t see any (credible) cases of people flying, or teleporting, or lifting buses, but there are some people in this world who can do some incredible things.
There’s the Brazilian woman who cries crystal tears and no one knows why. And there’s the real life Ice Man, Wim Hof from The Netherlands, who can withstand the cold better than anyone. There’s also the deep diver and marathon swimmer, Dave Mullens, who can literally swim like a fish. Or how about the German boy who, because of a rare genetic disorder, makes most bodybuilders feel shame. There are lots of people out there who have what in the comic books would be called superpowers, but which in real life are more like disabilities. Take the math student who not only survived without 95% of his brain, but he functioned normally, and even excelled in his studies. And he’s not alone. There are several others, who, like him, are afflicted with hydrocephalus. Which is a condition that causes an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the cranial vault. They do have brains, but they’re drastically smaller than what’s considered normal. The space in their skull that would otherwise be filled with grey matter, is actually filled with fluid, which itself plays a crucial role in neurochemistry. The condition is rare, but it has been described by neuroscientists a few times in the last one hundred years, and they’re just as baffled by it as you and I.
Medical oddities notwithstanding (though most comic book superheroes are just that, medical oddities), there is potential for real superpowers to emerge from our steady evolutionary march through time.
Some time ago I discussed the possibility of a new species of human developing from extended space exploration. Specifically the MarsOne mission. When any group of a single species is separated from the main population, over time the two groups will evolve along different paths, eventually becoming distinctly different species. This is called speciation, and it happens all the time, and it could happen to us if a portion of our population were to permanently leave Earth, to make a new home on another planet – a planet with drastically different environmental conditions, such as different gravity values, atmospheric content, even radiation levels. Who knows how long it might take new selection pressures to push that group into a new evolutionary niche? Fifty generations? A hundred? A thousand? However long it takes, it will happen eventually (provided the group remains isolated from Earth’s population), and who knows how their genes will adapt to better suit that environment. Shouldn’t we consider the potential genetic fallout of space colonisation?
The same thing could actually happen here on Earth too, though the changes to the splinter group’s genetics might not be readily apparent at first.
In the Bay of Bengal, between Myanmar and Indonesia, sits a little tree covered land mass called North Sentinel Island. It doesn’t look like much on a map, and even if you check it out on Google Earth, you won’t see much, other than trees and what appears to be a world class white sand beach ringing the island. However, if you actually went to the island you’d be in for a surprise, and then you’d likely be killed. The inhabitants of North Sentinel, who number somewhere between 50 and 600 individuals are, shall we say, not fans of the drop-in. Almost everyone who has set foot on that island has been brutally murdered with spears and arrows. The Sentinelese, as they’ve come to be known, are one of, if not the oldest uncontacted tribe of indigenous people on the planet. The island officially belongs to India, and special laws have been enacted to prevent outsiders from coming into contact with the especially xenophobic Sentinelese. This is for our safety as much as theirs. Since they’ve been physically isolated from the rest of humanity for thousands of years, they haven’t developed the same immunities to disease as the rest of us have over millennia, and even the most benign flu bug could wipe them out overnight.
But that highlights the fact that they’ve evolved differently than us. The extent to those differences is entirely unknown, since study is currently impossible, but it’s virtually guaranteed that there are differences between us, however subtle they may be. But we can speculate…
Did you know that humans, all humans, have the capacity for bioluminescence? In fact, not only do we have the capacity for it, we do it regularly. It’s just that the light emitted is too weak to see with the naked eye. It’s possible for scientists to observe it, and indeed some have studied it and apparently human bioluminescence peaks daily, in mid-afternoon. This ability seems to be a remnant of a time long before the emergence of Homo sapiens, and perhaps suggests a vestigial adaptation to darkness, an adaptation that’s no longer needed by us.
But what if the Sentinelese, who have no discernable technology, developed an enhanced bioluminescence ability to the point that it’s become useful to them in the dark of night on that lonely island?
As mentioned, that’s pure speculation; there’s really no reason to think that they actually have developed that ability or anything like it, given that the pool of genetic characteristics they have at their disposal is nearly endless, but thinking about the possibilities opens our minds a wider worldview, and allows us to better plan for our own future. If we can see the possibilities more clearly, we can work to make sure that we evolve along a path that remains favourable for our survival. And the current state of genetic research and of our ability to manipulate our own genome might suggest that we really do have superheroes in our future.